You Said I "Might Like" That???

March 16, 2015 Alex Ziegler

Personalization: it may have its missteps, but there is hope for getting it right.

We’ve all experienced it.
We log onto our favorite online shopping site and there it is: a recommendation or giant ad, telling us to purchase something we have absolutely no interest in buying.

Maybe you were shopping for a baby shower gift, or for your dad who’s into bird watching. Maybe you decided to click around and explore a type of jacket that you realized you have no business trying to pull off. Or maybe you actually did like something, but you already bought it – so why is this website telling you to buy another of the exact same thing?? So frustrating!

It’s sad to see things like this happen with personalization, given how often we hear this buzzword being thrown around. Many see this form of customization as the future; not just for online shopping, but also for all the ways we consume digital content in general.

It’s not hard to see why. In a perfect world, what’s not to love about personalization? Wouldn’t it be great if the perfect clothing, songs, videos, books and articles were all handpicked just for you? The overwhelming amount of online content would be shrunken down to size, showing you just the winners (and maybe even things you wouldn’t have picked for yourself but find that you love anyway).

The good news is, there are ways to make personalization work without asking users to answer a ton of questions behind a login or by tracking user’s clicks out of context. Here are 3 fresh strategies that may be worth considering:

1. Course Correction
This first approach is one that I noticed on The site doesn’t just make recommendations for its online shoppers, but it lets them know why they are making their suggestions.

In the below example, Nordstrom noticed that a particular necklace caught my eye. Based on this, the site recommended similar products that other shoppers also viewed. If these suggestions were not relevant to me, I could simply click “Don’t use this.” In a way, it allows me to say: “Silly Nordstrom, I see where you were going with this, but I don’t need a necklace like that anymore.”

Nordstrom suggestions

Can you imagine how this might work with content that you publish - such as thought leadership, webinars or events? You can track what users previously viewed and then let them know exactly what is driving your suggestions. They can help you by course-correcting the logic that may not apply to them anymore for one reason or another.

2. The Human Touch
This second approach may surprise you. Although it seems antiquated and labor intensive to have real people helping to personalize content, it might not be as crazy as it sounds.

In a recent NPR podcast, there was a discussion about how Amazon actually hires people to use their judgment to determine if two things are truly similar or not, ensuring that shopping suggestions make sense. Amazon finds people to do this work through its "Mechanical Turk" service (which apparently got its name from an old expression meaning a person pretending to be a machine).

A similar approach is used by popular clothing services such as Stitch Fix, Keaton Row and Trunk Club (pictured below). In contrast to Amazon, they make the “human touch” visible to the user. Each company touts their ability to offer personal stylists to help their customers find just the right looks. People are willing to pay a premium simply to have someone else browse and select products on their behalf.

Trunk Club

Whether it be utilizing crowdsourcing (like Mechanical Turk) or openly offering personal suggestions, adding the human touch is an increasingly feasible and common form of personalization. When thinking about your digital media, there may be ways to tap into the knowledge of your own internal staff to help determine what content is strongly linked or would be enjoyed by the same person. Based on the context of your users (whether they are a recognized or an anonymous user), you may choose to openly share this human effort or keep it working its magic behind the scenes.

3. Saved Search Criteria
This last approach is something you can likely relate to. Do you ever find yourself going to a site and searching for exactly the same types of things? Like on Zappos, for example, how often does your shoe size, favorite brand or preferred sort order really change? And if you’re looking for content to stay on top of the latest in your profession, don’t certain categories like your title, role and field tend to stay pretty consistent (at least over a certain period of time)?

There are opportunities for sites to become better at listening to your search criteria instead of all the individual pages you click through. For example, wouldn’t it be nice if sites stored the filters you selected from your last session? Or defaulted to the way you last had your sort order selected? It’s like coming back to your office and seeing everything just as you left it.

Services like Google Alerts, Ebay and Overstock’s “follow this search” option function according to this principle. They know that users often have specific criteria and simply want to check back or be alerted if anything new popped up within their areas of interest.

Overstock's "Follow This Search" Feature

What’s nice is that this doesn’t feel like a lot of work to the user. It’s not framed as “preferences” that go into the abyss, but rather highly directive selections that lead to instant gratification.

Moral of the Story
There are many ways to tackle personalization. So many, in fact, that it can often feel overwhelming not just to users but to the organizations that implement these tactics. Hopefully this post has helped you see that there are ways you can be thoughtful about your approach and consider fresh ways to support and empower your target audiences. Maybe there is hope for personalization after all.

Looking for more content strategy advice? Check out Julia's post and learn some best practices to keep in mind for real-time marketing.


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Alex Ziegler

At the time of publishing, Alex was a Strategist at One North.


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